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Just Follow The Numbers

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Data-mining is the sophisticated mathematical analysis of large masses of numbers in search of telltale patterns. I won't pretend to know how it works. At the first mention of algorithms, to borrow a phrase from the late great Sam Goldwyn, that master of the malaprop, include me out.


I do know there are historical patterns as well as mathematical ones, and the current foofaraw over the use of Big Data to prevent terrorist attacks on this country fits right into an old and familiar one: In the first rush of fury after a sneak attack on this country, Americans stand united behind our president and commander-in-chief and back his every move.

But as the struggle continues year after year, as sacrifices mount and doubts multiply, national unity begins to fray.

In the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor, a galvanized nation came together. But as the years wore on, and Gold Stars began to appear in window after window, a different mood began to set in. When the casualty reports started filtering in from Okinawa, the bloodiest landing in the Pacific campaign, public support for the war took a dramatic dip in the opinion polls. How long could this go on?

The same pattern emerged during the Korean Conflict, a war by a different name. Harry Truman, who had just won a stunning victory in the 1948 presidential election, an upset that still inspires every political underdog, would leave the White House in 1953 as one of the most unpopular presidents of his century. His historical rehabilitation, as the deep divisions and suspicions of those times slowly faded, would take years.

Note the rise and fall in political support for George W. Bush. The country rallied behind his leadership in the immediate aftermath of September 11th, this generation's December 7th. His wartime policies, once overwhelmingly supported, were overwhelmingly rejected in the presidential election of 2008, and a junior senator from Illinois who had been one of his chief critics would become his successor as president.


Whatever doubts about those policies Barack Obama had voiced as a senator, once he became president and commander-in-chief, he would adopt almost every one of them -- from drone warfare to data-mining. Power can breed responsibility.

Yes, our president still pays lip service to some of the views he embraced as a senator: He still wants to close Guantanamo, though without offering a better or even clearer alternative to holding unlawful combatants there. And just the other day he was recommending repeal of the Patriot Act, even as he was pursuing the War on Terror (if not by the same name any longer) under that act.

Naturally enough, our president is loath to admit he's changed course. He's not a man who can readily admit he was wrong. About anything. Rather, he explains that his position on this war has "evolved."

Fine. What does it matter how the president explains his change of heart so long as he's adopted the right course now? As he has when it comes to data-mining, which is just the kind of intelligence operation that might have prevented September 11th and may have prevented more than one terrorist act since.

Republicans should resist the temptation to pile on this president (and commander-in-chief) when he is defending the country by every legitimate means at his disposal.

The loyal opposition needs to avoid doing to President Obama what Sen. Obama and partisan company did to President Bush. This issue is too important, and the danger to the country too real, to make cheap points.


Some senators still display their old knee-jerk tendencies when a president seeks to protect us under the Patriot Act. See the reaction of the Hon. Charles Schumer, distinguished senator and nudnik from New York. He calls data-mining an "invasive" technique and complains: "One thing I have not heard is what the explanation is for needing this."

If the senator really wants to know the reason for all this data-mining, he need only go over to lower Manhattan and look at the site that was occupied by the Twin Towers before September 11, 2001. At the time, data-mining, like the Surge in Iraq and then Afghanistan, had not yet been tried, let alone succeeded.

As the hubbub over data-mining bubbles on (newspapers do have to have scandals to write about even if they're non-scandals), here's hoping everybody will calm down soon enough and try to see this issue in perspective.

Lest we forget, data-mining reveals only the location and duration of phone calls, not their content -- just as your phone bill does -- so the government can spot suspicious activity. In much the same way, some little old lady in Peoria or Schenectady is likely to get a call from her credit-card company if it notes that she's suddenly spent $10,000 on diamonds and surfboards in Miami. Any departure from the usual pattern should sound an alarm.

In order to listen to the content of a call or get the text of an email, the government still needs the permission of a court. The court proceedings may be secret -- why alert the bad guys? -- but they're an additional safeguard against government's abusing its authority to protect us.


This little flare-up in the news, or what passes for news in this case, will surely fade soon enough. Data-mining has been with us for years. Perspective should return once folks understand what data-mining is and what it's not. It's a sophisticated way to spot incipient threats to our security. It's not an unrestricted license to read American citizens' emails or listen in on our phone calls. There's nothing scandalous about this "scandal."

Besides, with this administration mired in real scandals that seem to erupt every day, senators like Chuck Schumer and Rand Paul, his right-wing mirror image, have no cause to get all worked up about a non-scandal. And neither does the American public.

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